Local Communities in High Fire Hazard Zones

Local Communities in High Fire Hazard Zones

S.E. Williams
Contributor 

In recent days fires raged up and down the state of California. Years of unforgiving drought and ferocious winds collided and exacted a devastating and costly toll in lives and property. Such tragedies are occurring with increased frequency—each event out ranking the one that came before.  

By Tuesday, 44 people were dead, more than 200 remained missing and 9,000 firefighters bravely battled conflagrations that, beyond the loss of life, had already destroyed 7,000 structures and charred more than a hundred thousand acres.  These fires showed what can happen when circumstances coalesce and create conditions that limit residents’ ability to out run the flames. 

Combine the potential for future wildfires with the number of Californians now living in harm’s way and it is clear the dangers persist. As the drought continues and the velocity and/or duration of Santa Ana winds increase, the probability for future, devastating wildfires is nearly assured.  When that potential is considered in relation to years of development in the state’s wildland/urban interface areas (WUI), the risks become even clearer. WUI’s are often defined as zones of transition between unoccupied land and human development.

Much attention is given and rightly so to the role Santa Ana winds play in California wildfires. An interesting case study of the North Bay and Southern California (NBSC) wildfires of 2017, revealed the December fires that occurred in Southern California that year arose during the longest Santa Ana wind event on record. This resulted in what was then identified as the largest wildfire in California’s modern history. Recent fires have since claimed that title.  

The NBSC study also highlighted the state’s wildfire history as one littered with fast-moving, destructive wildfires occurring adjacent to populated area. Unfortunately, nearly one-third of all Californians live in areas identified as wildland/urban interface zones and that number is only expected to increase in the coming decades.

On Monday morning four major wildfires raged in the state. In Southern California, at least ten communities remained under mandatory evacuation orders. Each day, the number of dead increased.    Wildfires can spread with such furious velocity there may be little opportunity to escape—sadly this was the lesson of Paradise, California. 

Experts say having a fire plan is important. Such plans increase the probably you and your family will be prepared for an emergency event. The plan should include the telephone number of a friend or relative outside the area that all family members can check in with, in case you are separated during the event. Keep your important documents in a fire-proof lock box. Take time to master the various escape routes out of your community or place of employment.

Check with your children’s school to assure yourself they have an emergency evacuation plan and teacher/staff know how to execute it. In case of an emergency evacuation, know where your kids will be taken. 

In addition, make sure you have adequate fire insurance coverage. Many homeowners make the mistake of insuring their property based on market value or the mortgage amount and the value of their personal property. Instead, homeowners should assure their property is insured based on what it would cost to rebuild and refurbish at today’s rate, as well as what it would cost you to replace personal property. It is also recommended you photograph your possessions to create a record of belongs.  

In 2000-2001 Congress called for the establishment of a National Fire Plan. In response, the California Fire Alliance—a coalition of representatives from State and Federal Fire Agencies considered three main components in its assessment of threats from wildfires to Wildland/Urban Interface (WUI) areas of California. It included the ranking of fuel hazard, assessing the probability of wildland fire and defining areas of suitable housing density that lead to WUI fire protection strategies. These three components were subsequently combined using GIS to identify WUI areas threatened by wildfires. 

Experts say much of the housing in the WUI is the result of counter-urbanization that began in the 1970s and led to the growth of suburban and exurban areas. By some estimates nearly 60 percent of the homes constructed between 1990 and 2000 were built in WUI areas. When housing density data was combined with vegetation data it indicated areas where wildland vegetation extends to their vicinity. 

To learn more about fire protection and Cal Fire’s California Fire Hazard Severity Zone Maps visit http://www.fire.ca.gov/fire_prevention/fire_prevention_wildland_zones_maps. To learn about the International Association of Fire Chiefs Ready, Set, Go program visit http://www.wildlandfirersg.org.

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